XVI. OUR CITY AND OUR COMING KING.
"For our citizenship is in heaven; from where also we wait for a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ: who shall fashion anew the body of our humiliation, that it may be conformed to the body of His glory, according to the working whereby He is able even to subject all things to Himself." — Phil. iii. 20, 21 (R.V.).
To live, amid the things of earth, and in constant converse with them, a life in the power of Christ's resurrection, and in the fellowship of His sufferings, was the Apostle's chosen course; in which he would have the Philippians to follow him. For a moment he had diverged to sketch, for warning, the way of the transgressors, who spend their lives intent on the things that pass away. Now he brings the argument to a close, by once more proclaiming the glory of the high calling in Christ. As the Christian faith looks backward to the triumph of Christ's resurrection, and to the meekness of His suffering, and receives its inspiration from them, so also it looks upward, and it looks forward. It is even now in habitual communion with the world on high; and it reaches on towards the hope of the Lord's return.
"Our citizenship is in heaven." The word here used (comp. i. 27) means the constitution or manner of life of a state or city. All men draw much from the spirit and laws of the commonwealth to which they belong; and in antiquity this influence was even stronger than we commonly find it to be in our day. The individual was conscious of himself as a member of his own city or state. Its life enfolded his. Its institutions set for him the conditions under which life was accepted and was carried on. Its laws determined for him his duties and his rights. The ancient and customary methods of the society developed a common spirit, under the influence of which each citizen unfolded his own personal peculiarities. When he went along elsewhere he felt himself, and was felt to be, a stranger. Now in the heavenly kingdom, which had claimed them and had opened to them through Christ, the believers had found their own city; and finding it, had become, comparatively, strangers in every other.
A way of thinking and acting prevails throughout the world, as if earth and its interests were the whole sphere of man; and being pervaded by this spirit, the whole world may be said to be a commonwealth with a spirit and with maxims of its own. We, who live in it, feel it natural to comply with the drift of things in this respect, and difficult to stand against it; so that separation and singularity seem unreasonable and hard. We claim for our lives the support of a common understanding; we yearn for the comfort of a system of things existing round us, in which we may find countenance. It was urged against the Christians of the early ages that their religion was unsocial — it broke the ties by which men held together; and doubtless many a Christian, in hours of trial and depression, felt with pain that much in Christian life offered a foundation for the reproach. On the other hand, those who, like the enemies of the cross, refer their lives to the world's standard, rather than to Christ's, have at least this comfort, that they have a tangible city. The world is their city: therefore also the prince of it is their king. But the Apostle, for himself and his fellows, sets against this the true city or state — with its more original and ancient sanctions; with its more authoritative laws; with its far more pervading and mighty spirit, for the Spirit of God Himself is the life which binds it all together; with its glorious and gracious King. This commonwealth has its seat in heaven; for there it reveals its nature, and from there its power descends. We recognise this whenever we pray, "Your will be done in earth as it is in heaven." This, says the Apostle, is our citizenship. The archaism of the Authorised Version, "Our conversation" (that is, our habitual way of living) "is in heaven," expresses much of the meaning; only the "conversation" is referred, by the phrase employed in the text, to the sanctions under which it proceeds, the august fellowship by which it is sustained, the source of influence by which it is continually vitalised. Our state, and the life which as members of that state we claim and use, is celestial. Its life and strength, its glory and victory, are in heaven. But it is ours, though we are here on earth.
Therefore, according to the Apostle, the standard of our living, and its sanctions, and its way of thinking and proceeding, and, in a word, our city, with its interests and its objects, being in heaven, the earnest business of our life is there. We have to do with earth constantly and in ways most various; but, as Christians, our way of having to do with the earth itself is heavenly, and is to be conversant with heaven. What we mainly love and seek is in heaven; what we listen most to hear is the voice that comes from heaven; what we most earnestly speak is the voice we send to heaven; what lies next our heart is the treasure and the hope which are secure in heaven; what we are most intent upon is what we lay up in heaven, and how we are getting ready for heaven; there is One in heaven whom we love above all others; we are children of the kingdom of heaven; it is our country and our home; and something in us refuses to settle on those things here that reject the stamp of heaven.
Does this go too high? Does some one say, "Something in this direction attracts me and I reach out to it, but ah! how feebly"? — then how strongly does the principle of the Apostle's admonition apply. If we own that this city rightfully claims us, if we are deeply conscious of shortcoming in our response to that claim, then how much does it concern us to allow no earthly thing that by its own nature drags us down from our citizenship in heaven.
It is in heaven. Many ways it might be shown to be so; but it is enough to sum up all in this, that One has His presence there, who is the Life and the Lord of this city of ours, caring for us, calling us to the present fellowship with Him that is attainable in a life of faith, but especially (for this includes all the rest) whom we look for, to come forth from heaven for us. He has done wonders already to set up for us the grace of the kingdom of heaven, and He has brought us in to it; He is doing much for us daily in grace and in providence, upholding His Church on earth from age to age; but this "working" is proceeding to a final victory. He is "able to subject all things to Himself." And the emphatic proof of it which awaits all believers, is that the body itself, reconstituted in the likeness of Christ's own, shall at last be in full harmony with a destiny of immortal purity and glory. So shall the manifestation of His power and grace at last sweep through our whole being, within and without. That is the final triumph of salvation, with which the long history finds all its results attained. For this we await the coming of the Saviour from heaven. Well therefore may we say that the state to which we pertain, and the life which we hold as members of that state, is in heaven.
The expectation of the coming of Christ out of the world of supreme truth and purity, where God is known and served correctly, to fulfil all His promises, — this is the Church's and the believer's great hope. It is set before us in the New Testament as a motive to every duty, as giving weight to every warning, as determining the attitude and character of all Christian life. In particular, we cannot deal correctly with any of the earthly things committed to us, unless we deal with them in the light of Christ's expected coming. This expectation is to enter into the heart of every believer, and no one is warranted to overlook or make light of it. His coming, His appearing, the revelation of Him, the revelation of His glory, the coming of His day, and so forth, are pressed on us continually. In a true waiting for the day of Christ, is gathered up the right regard to what He did and bore when He came first, and also a right regard to Him as He is now the pledge and the sustainer of our soul's life: the one and the other are to pass onward to the hope of His appearing.
Some harm has been done, perhaps, by the degree in which attention has been concentrated on debatable points about the time of the Lord's coming, or the order of events in relation to it; but more by the measure in which Christians have allowed the world's unbelieving temper to affect on this point the habit of their own minds. It must be most seriously said that our Lord Himself expected no man to succeed in escaping the corruption of the world and enduring to the end, otherwise than in the way of watching for his Lord (see Luke xii. 35-40 — but the passages are too numerous to be quoted).
And the Apostle lays an emphasis on the character in which we expect Him. The word "Saviour" is emphatic. We look for a Saviour; not merely One who saved us once, but One who brings salvation with Him when He comes. It is the great good, in its completeness, that the Church sees coming to her with her Lord. Now she has the faith of it, — and with the faith an earnest and foretaste, — but then salvation comes. Therefore the coming is spoken of as redemption drawing nearly, as the time of the redemption of the purchased possession. So also in the Epistle to the Galatians the end of Christ's sacrifice is said to be to "deliver us from this present evil world."
Doubtless it is unwise to lay down extreme positions as to the spirit in which we are to deal with temporal things, and especially with their winning and attractive aspects. Christian men, at peace with God, should not only feel spiritual joy, but may well make a cheerful use of passing mercies. Yet certainly the Christian's hope is to be saved out of this world, and out of life as he knows it here, into one far better — saved out of the best and brightest state to which this present state of things can bring him. The Christian spirit is giving way in that man who, in whatever posture of his worldly affairs, does not feel that the present is a state entangled with evil, including much darkness and much estrangement from the soul's true rest. He ought to be minded so as to own the hope of being saved out of it, looking and hasting to the coming of the Lord.
If we lived out this conviction with some consistency, we should not go far wrong in our dealings with this present world. But probably there is no feature in which the average Christianity of to-day varies more from that of the early Christians, than in the faint impressions, and the faint influence, experienced by most modern Christians in connection with the expectation of the Lord's return.
As far as individual life goes, the position of men in both periods is much the same; it is so, in spite of all the changes that have taken place. Then, as now, the mirage of life tempted men to dream of felicities here, which hindered them from lifting up their heads to a prospect of redemption. But now, as then, counter influences work; the short and precarious term of human life, its disappointments, its cares and sorrows, its conflicts and falls, conspire to teach even the most reluctant Christian that the final and satisfying rest is not to be found here. So that the difference seems to arise mainly from a secret failure of faith on this point, due to the impression made by long ages in which Christ has not come. "Where is the promise of His coming? All things continue as they were."
This may suggest, however, that influences are recognisable, tending to form, in modern Christians, a habit of thought and feeling less favourable to vivid expectation of Christ's coming. It does not arise so much in connection with individual experience, but is rather an impression drawn from history and from the common life of men. In the days of Paul, general history was simply discouraging to spiritual minds. It led men to think of all creation groaning together. Civilisation certainly had made advances; civil government had conferred some of its benefits on men; and, lately, the strong hand of Rome, however heavily it might press, had averted or abridged some of the evils that afflicted nations. Still, on the whole, darkness, corruption, and social wrong continued to mark the scene, and there was little to suggest that prolonged effort might gradually work improvement. Rather it seemed that a rapid dispensation of grace, winning its way by supernatural energy, might well lead on to the winding up of the whole scene, sweeping all away before the advent of new heavens and a new earth. But, for us, nineteen hundred years have well-nearly passed. The Christian Church has been confronted all that time with her great task; and, however imperfect her light and her methods have often been, she has set processes agoing, and pressed on in lines of action, in which she has not been without her reward. Also the public action of at least the European races, stimulated and guided by Christianity, has been inspired by faith in progress and in a reign of justice, and has applied itself to improve the conditions of men. How much of sin and pain still afflict the world is too sadly evident. But the memory of the successive lives of saints, thinkers, men of public spirit and devoted public action, is strong in Christian minds to-day — it is a long, animating history. And never more than at the present time did the world press itself on the Christian mind as the sphere for effort, for helpful and hopeful achievement. All this tends to fix the eye on what may happen before Christ comes; for one asks room and time to fight the battle out, to see the long co-operant processes converge upon their goal. The conflict is thought of as one to be bequeathed, like freedom's battle, from sire to son, through indefinite periods beyond which men do not very often look. And, indeed, the amelioration of the world and remedy of its ills by works of faith and love is Christlike work. The world cannot want it; the fruit of it will not be withheld; and the hopeful ardour with which it is pursued is Christ's gift to His people. For Christ Himself healed and fed the multitudes. Yet all this shall not replace the coming of Christ, and the redemption that draws nearly with Him. The longing eyes that gaze into the prospects of public-spirited beneficence and Christian philanthropy, do well; but they must also look higher up and further on.
One thing must be said. It is vain for us to suppose we can adjust beforehand, to our own satisfaction, the elements which enter into the future, so as to make a well-fitted scheme of it. That was not designed. And in this case two ways of looking at the future are apt to strive together. The man who is occupied with processes that, as he conceives, might eventuate in a reign of goodness reached by gradual amelioration, by successive victories of the better cause, may look askance on the promise of Christ's coming, because he dislikes catastrophe and cataclysm. First the blade, then the ear, then the full corn in the ear, is his motto. And the man who is full of the thought of the Lord's return, and deeply persuaded that nothing less will eradicate the world's disease, may look with impatience on measures that seem to aim at slow and far results. But neither the one mode of view nor the other is to be sacrificed. Work is to be done in the world on the lines that promise best to bless the world. Yet also this faith must never be let down — The Lord is coming; the Lord shall come.
How decisive the change is which Christ completes at His coming — how distinctive, therefore, and unworldly, that citizenship which takes its type from heaven where He is, and from the hope of His appearing — is last of all set plainly. Paul might have dwelt on many great blessings the full meaning of which will be unfolded when Christ comes; for He is to conform all things to Himself. But Paul prefers to signalise what shall befall our bodies; for that makes us feel that not one element in our state shall fail to be subjected to the victorious energy of Christ. Our bodies are, in our present state, conspicuously refractory to the influences of the higher kingdom. Regeneration makes no improvement on them. In our body we carry about with us what seems to mock the idea of an ethereal and ideal life. And when we die, the corruption of the grave speaks of anything but hope. Here, then, in this very point the salvation of Christ shall complete its triumph, saving us all over and all through. He "shall fashion anew the body of our humiliation, that it may be conformed to the body of His glory."
For the Apostle Paul the question how the body is to be reckoned with in any lofty view of human life had a peculiar interest. One sees how his mind dwelt upon it. He does not indeed impute to the body any original or essential antagonism to the soul's better life. But it shares in the debasement and disorganisation implied in sin; it has become the ready avenue for many temptations. Through it the man has become participant of a vivid and unintermittent earthliness, contrasting all too sadly with the feebleness of spiritual impressions and affections, so that the balance of our being is deranged. Nor does grace directly affect men's bodily conditions. Here, then, is an element in a renewed life that has a peculiar refractoriness and irresponsiveness. So much is this so that sin in our complex nature easily turns this way, easily finds resources in this quarter. Hence sin in us often takes its denomination from this side of things. It is the flesh, and the minding of the flesh, that is to be crucified. On the other hand, just because life for us is life in the body, therefore the body with its members must be brought into the service of Christ, and must fulfil the will of God. "Yield your bodies a living sacrifice." "Your bodies are temples of the Holy Ghost." A disembodied Christianity is to the Apostle no Christianity. There may be difficulties, indeed, in carrying this consecration through, elements of resistance and insubordination to be overcome. If so, they must be fought down. "I keep under my body and bring it into subjection, lest I prove a castaway." To be thorough in this proved hard even for Paul. "Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?" — a text in which one sees how the "body" offered itself as the ready symbol of the whole inward burden and difficulty. So the body is dead because of sin: dying, fit to die, appointed to die, and not now renewed to life. "But if the Spirit of Him that raised up Christ from the dead dwell in you, He that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies by His Spirit that dwells in you." Then, limits now imposed on right thinking, right feeling, right acting, shall be found to have passed away. Till then we groan, waiting for the adoption, the redemption of the body; but then shall be the manifestation of the sons of God. To Paul this came home as one of the most definite, practical, and decisive forms in which the triumph of Christ's salvation should be declared.
The body, then, by which we hold converse with the world, and by which we give expression to our mental life, has shared in the evil that comes by sin. We find it to be the body of our humiliation. It is not only liable to pain, decay, and death, not only subject to much that is humbling and distressing, but it has become an ill-adapted organ for an aspiring soul. The bodily state weighs down the soul, when its aspirations after good have been rekindled. It is not wholly unconnected with our physical state that it is so hard to carry the recognition of God and the life of faith into the comings and goings of the outward life; so hard to wed the persuasions of our faith to the impressions of our sense. But we look forward to our Lord's coming with the expectation that the body of our humiliation shall be transfigured into the likeness of the body of His glory. In this we discern with what a pervading energy He is to subdue all things to Himself. Love in righteousness is to triumph through all spheres.
We have more than once acknowledged how natural it is to dream of constructing a Christian life on earth with all its elements, natural and spiritual, perfectly harmonised, each having its place in relation to each so as to make the music of a perfect whole. And in the strength of such a dream, some look down on all Christian practice as blind and narrow, which seems to them to mar life by setting one element of it against another. It must be owned that narrow types of Christianity have often needlessly offended so. Nevertheless we have here a new proof that the dream of those who would achieve a perfect harmony, in the present state and under present conditions, is vain. A perfect Christian harmony of life cannot be restored in the body of our humiliation. The nobler part is to own this, and to confess that amid many undeserved good gifts, yet, in relation to the great hope set before us, we groan, waiting for the redemption; when Christ who now fits us to run the race and bear the cross shall come and save us out of all this, changing the body of our humiliation into the likeness of the body of His glory.
Against the ways of Jewish self-righteousness, and against the impulses of fleshly minds, the Apostle had set the true Christianity — the methods in which it grows, the influences on which it relies, the truths and hopes by which it is mainly sustained, the high citizenship which it claims and to the type of which it resolutely conforms. All this was possible in Christ, all this was actual in Christ, all this was theirs in Christ. Yet this is what is brought into debate, by unbelief and sin; this against unbelief and sin has to be maintained. Some influences come to shake us as to the truth of it — "It is not so real after all." Some influences come to shake us as to the good of it — "It is not after all so very, so supremely, so satisfyingly good." Some influences come to shake us as to our own part in it — "It can hardly control and sustain my life, for after all perhaps — alas, most likely — it is not for me, it cannot be for me." Against all this we are to make our stand, in and with our Lord and Master. He is our confidence and our strength. How the Apostle longed to see this victory achieved in the case of all these Philippians, who were the treasure and the fruit of his life and labour! Be decided about all this, be clear about it, cast every other way of it from you. "Therefore, my dearly beloved brethren, my joy and crown, so stand fast in the Lord, my dearly beloved."
From the Epistle to the Philippians by Robert Rainy, D.D., Principal of New College. Edinburgh. Published by FUNK & WAGNALLS COMPANY in 1990. Digitally produced by Colin Bell, Julia Neufeld and the Online
Reach for the Calling Creator
To the Philippians - R. Rainy
ON THE BOOK SHELF
May your calling be the best.